Mt. Olive Lutheran Church Senior Pastor to retire after nearly a decade
By Dolores Quintana
Reverend Eric C. Shafer has served as senior pastor for Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica for over eight years, since 2014. He has decided to retire after his long service to his congregations and to their communities. He leaves a strong record of community service and dedication to his Church and “spreading God’s love” as part of his calling and his personal faith in Christianity. At Mount Olive, he has brought the Bruin Shelter for homeless college students into the church and helped found an interfaith council. After the Pulse mass shooting attack on an LGBTQ niteclub, he organized a “Love Orlando, Music Heals” benefit concert to raise money for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Central Florida. He serves as chair of the board of the Westside Coalition for Housing, Hunger, and Health and on the Santa Monica Bay Area Human Relations Council, the President’s Council for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the Santa Monica College General Advisory Board, and the Advisory Committee for the Day1 preaching ministry. Mount Olive’s congregation is currently raising funds for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services’ (LIRS) work with Ukrainian refugees and has already raised more than $6,000.
We spoke to this outstanding member of the Santa Monica community about faith, his career, how he has worked to help the unhoused, his views on the issues of homelessness and refugees and how he thinks we can all help. The interview had to wait for a few moments, because he was doing his best to help an unhoused man who had come to his window for help. He handed the man money from his own pocket. It’s not something that a lot of people would do, but it shows how serious he is about his faith and his mission to make the world a better place than he found it.
Dolores Quintana: I understand that you will be retiring soon.
Reverend Eric C. Shafer: Correct. April 30, will be my last day officially as pastor here.
I would like to ask you a little about your background. How did you come to the Church?
Sure, I have been a Lutheran pastor for 45 years. I just celebrated that anniversary in 2021. I came here from New York City, where I was a senior vice president of Odyssey Networks, which was then the largest faith-based media coalition in the country. But I’ve served congregations large and small in the past, and for my longest call was at our national church office in Chicago, where I was director of communication for the whole church for 15 years. We’ve been in Pennsylvania, New York, Chicago and Ohio. We’ve been all around the country during those years. Each of my positions has been wonderful. This one has certainly been amazing. It’ll be a little more than eight years when I retire.
What made you make the decision to leave the East Coast and come to the West Coast, and Santa Monica?
Sure. That position in New York City ended when Odyssey networks ran out of money. I was, among other things, HR director, so I actually laid off myself. That was a unique situation. But we had four wonderful years there. The bishop here at that time, Bishop Guy Erwin, had known me from the past and he recommended me for this congregation, thinking it would be a good fit. It has been. In the Lutheran church, the bishop recommends a pastor and the congregation votes. It’s not like the Roman Catholic Church where they assign a person or the Methodist church, but it’s also not like the Presbyterian Church, or the United Church of Christ, where they might look at as many as 100 candidates. In our tradition, the Bishop says, “Dolores would be a good pastor here, take a look at Dolores.” Then they do and they can say no. If they do, then the bishop will give them another name. But that’s our system and it works pretty well. Because the idea is the bishop knows the congregations and pastors fill out forms and congregations fill out forms. That’s what they’re in the process now of doing for my successor here at Mount Olive.
I appreciate you explaining what the Lutheran process is. Not everybody knows what the process is for each different faith. This process strikes me as a very democratic process in the Lutheran faith.
I think it really is because the current congregation makes the final choice. The bishop doesn’t say you must take this person. The new bishop has told the council here already, we call our board of directors a Congregation Council, she told the council already that she will give them one, two or three names. If they say no, she’ll give them more names. But of course, you have to be careful because after you’ve turned somebody down, you can’t go back to them. That process will happen without me involved. I will stay out of that process while they pick the successor.
What are your duties as a pastor at the church?
I am the senior pastor here at Mount Olive. That means that I have four big responsibilities. I am the pastor of this congregation, which has about 225 members and is very, very active in the community. We also have a preschool with about 100 students that is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022. It was one of the first preschools in Santa Monica. I obviously have a responsibility for that, although there is a full time director and 25 member staff. In recent years, we’ve also become the sponsor of two other organizations: Westside Coalition for Housing, Hunger and Health (WCFHHAH). There are 70 organizations on the westside working in those areas. WCFHHH is made up of government, social service agencies, faith-based organizations, businesses, and individuals and the organization is housed here. We sponsor it. Darci Niva is on my staff as executive director. In more recent years, we also became the corporate sponsor for Students 4 Students, an organization that sponsors shelters for homeless college students. As you can see in the background here, we had the first shelter for homeless college students in the nation, five years ago here at Mount Olive. These are unique shelters in that they’re run by students from those universities. So UCLA students run the shelter here, USC students run the shelter at St. Mary’s Episcopal in downtown LA, UC Davis students run the Aggie House at UC Davis and starting soon, UC Santa Cruz students will be running the Slug Shelter. I didn’t know what their mascot was, but that’s their name.
They’re very proud of their mascot and thus proud of being banana slugs.
I didn’t know anything, well frankly, no one knew anything about college student homelessness five years ago. One of the things we’re most proud of is that we brought this issue to the attention of the country. We’ve been featured in The New York Times, the LA Times, on PBS on national radio and then the piece on CBS Sunday Morning, which was just amazing with Jane Pauley. I always tell the volunteer students that it’s wonderful that you’ve done something for the residents, but you’ve done much more than that by helping to bring this issue to light. We have people writing to us, whether we’re talking to student groups from Berkeley, and UC San Diego about starting shelters. This is amazing and so it’s a great privilege to be involved in that work. All the work is a great privilege. What’s interesting, Dolores, is that the congregation benefits in so many ways from the fact that we’re doing all these other things. Of course, that’s what a congregation should be doing, serving the community. So that’s the primary benefit, but people come to be members of our congregation, because of the student’s shelter, because of school, because of the coalition. They want to be part of the congregation that’s involved in this way in this community. Then in the past two years, we ramped up our feeding programs for the community. We have out on the corner, it’s like a little pantry. You see those little libraries outside people’s homes? This pantry is the same thing. We put food in it every day. People take whatever they need out of it. 24/7. We’re spending about $1,000 a month feeding the community and there are hungry people in Santa Monica. It’s not just homeless people, although they’re hungry, too. But we have hungry families who aren’t unhoused in Santa Monica. We’re very pleased that we’ve been able to do that. That’s been a new ministry here. It’s going very well. I mean, the good news is we’re spending $1,000 a month to feed people. The bad news is we’re spending $1,000 a month to feed people because we have to do that. The congregation has responded so well to that. My role is to suggest things and to support things. When someone brings us an idea, to help them do it. I see myself as a networker for all my career and especially now with all these different organizations under our umbrella. In pre COVID times, there were more than 5000 people through this building every week. Because we also had 15 Twelve Step groups, they’re gradually coming back. I think we have about six meetings. Then we have a lot of concerts because we have this beautiful church that has great acoustics. We have a lot of recitals, concerts and big meetings. We have a big hall and a big church and we have a big parking lot. As you know, in Southern California, that’s a big deal. So we’re really a community center on this side of town. Our tagline is a church for the whole community and that’s not blowing smoke. That really is what these people are. They were that way before I came and I think we’ve done even more to be that church for the whole community.
That’s great. As you mentioned, a big part of religion – specifically the Christian faith, is not only doing service to the community, but also helping your fellow man. That’s a big part of the faith and the gospel of Christ. Does it ever feel like you’ve done enough? Or do you wish you could do more?
Well, you just overheard some of my conversation at the window. I had a tough one yesterday with a homeless person who was out in the rain. I tried to help and you wish you could do more. But churches can’t do it alone, the government has to do more. We have to figure out how to help the mentally ill on the street. But it’s very satisfying to have done the work with homeless college students. The wonderful thing about that work is it’s not as threatening to people as homeless people on the street. So I tell the student leaders that one of the things they are doing allows people to dip their toe into the homeless issue by supporting our work. Then maybe they’ll also be interested in the homeless person on the corner and see what they can do to help. I think a lot of the work as any pastor and certainly has been my work is planting seeds for future growth. Things I’ll never see. But the work in the homeless area with students has been wonderful. I’ve also done a lot of work with interfaith, as you’ve seen on my resume, the Interfaith Coalition was kind of in the doldrums when I came and worked with Reverend Janet McKeithan at the Church of Ocean Park. We have resurrected that group and now it’s a strong group doing a lot of work in the community. You mentioned that the role of Christians is to reach out with love, but that’s kind of a common theme of all religions. In interfaith work, we’re much more like than we are different. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or the LDS Church, has been very supportive of our food program here and they participate in some of the interfaith activities. That’s been really wonderful. So we’re also a gay friendly church and we’re very proud of that. While we’re a majority white church, we do have a good number of non white members. The point is both in the congregation for worship and in all of our activities, that community, we want to be welcoming, and serve all the community, not just people that look like us, not just people of our same economic level, but everyone. We believe that’s what our faith tells us to do. And also, as I said, that has only benefited the core congregation, it hasn’t taken anything away. Because people come here because this is the church that does that.
You basically set the example and counting on that people will see the example and it will encourage them.
That’s right and that it will provide a way that they can get involved if they want to, especially with the food pantry. We have a team of volunteers that fills it every day. The head of the pantry is here now, meeting with one of my staff. We’ve been blessed here with a wonderful staff. We have an amazing youth director. When a new family walks into church, he likely knows them because of the preschool. We have wonderful musicians. We were very blessed with the team we have here at Mount Olive. Again, for a small place, we have a large staff, a lot of ministries with a good size budget to do work in the community.
What do you see as your legacy here at the church and in general?
Well, that’s probably for others to determine. I think that I have focused on a number of things over my years of ministry. Obviously, with the communication side of my ministry, I want to emphasize the love of God for humankind. I think that’s central to the Christian faith, and it’s also central to other faiths. So that’s been a hallmark of my ministry. I’m not a judgment guy. I’m spreading God’s love. That’s the bottom line. Then I think my unique skill has been to network people to do ministry. When I had the large staff in Chicago, as head of communication, and for the whole church, I said that my job was to hire the best people, get the money and get out of their way. I think that even in a smaller place like this, you should make sure that the people, both professional and volunteer, are good and then let them do their ministry in the community and the ministry in the congregation. The preschool runs so very well, because we have this amazing staff, 25 staff, many of whom have been here for twenty to thirty or more years and just love children. I don’t have to worry about that too much. Because I got an amazing team doing that. That’s the best thing you can have as a pastor. You want ministries to work on their own. I think my legacy will be the ministries. I think I’ll be remembered for bringing in these other organizations, the coalition and the shelter ministry. Also, we’ve done some fiscal improvements on the church. We just finished a major renovation of our narthex, the entryway, and bathrooms. We took out two thirds of the pews. Five years ago, we took out two thirds of the pews and made a much larger area for children. And all of a sudden, families feel more welcome. That little thing, which, if you know anything about congregations, it’s not a little thing to change the chairs. But that little thing has made a huge difference in what we can do in that big room. In that decision and the decision to house the shelter, I had amazing leaders on my council who were willing to take leadership and not be afraid to step out. We converted the classrooms to a dorm room for shelter, for a couple of people that was controversial, but it really wasn’t. It was interesting to see our neighborhood was supportive of this. When the shelter first opened, I walked along the street and somebody would say, “Are you the pastor of the church with a shelter” and I brace myself. The next thing they said was always, “how can we help? It’s so wonderful. We’re glad you’re doing that.” So that’s been very rewarding.
How did you become aware of the problem of homelessness for college people, for college students, and how did you become involved specifically?
Well part of the story that I’ve told in the media, but in my first year and a half here Darci Niva came to me and said, “Pastor, I want you to meet a young man named Lewis”. Lewis was a grad student at UCLA and he had a dream to open a shelter for homeless college students run by college students. And as Lewis tells us his story, he went to 50 congregations of all faiths, Christian, Jewish or otherwise and they turned him down and we said, yes. Now frankly, I’m not sure that it was 50, but it was a lot. We said yes, because we had this space, and why not? Sure, some of this is about my leadership. But my council said, well, why wouldn’t we do that? It has worked out well. So that was my introduction, through a student, a grad student at the time, who had this dream. Then it’s grown from there, now it has its own board and student groups and other student groups have written to us and we’ve gotten them started. Now we have four shelters.
Because you mentioned earlier that you feel like the government has to get involved and do more, I feel the same way. What would you suggest? What do you think the government could do to specifically help with the problems like homelessness?
I’m not an expert in homelessness, I have this niche with college student homelessness, but I believe and you read about the issue of right to housing that some cities have. With that ability to help, we need to figure out some way to help the mentally ill on the street, who can’t help themselves. I don’t want to incarcerate people. That’s not the point. But there’s no question in my mind that that man standing in the rain yesterday would be better off if he had been in some sort of a protected place. We need some combination of having the right to housing with a little bit of being able to help people who can’t help themselves. I don’t have the answers for that. But I know that we just need more housing. The solution to homelessness is housing. Affordable housing. California is trying, LA County is trying, Santa Monica is trying in those areas. But that’s the solution. The solution to homelessness is housing and it is the solution to college student homelessness. It’s the solution to any and all kinds of homelessness. I hope the government is looking at the whole issue of the right to shelter. That was something we had in New York City under Mayor Bloomberg. Actually, we got most people sheltered in the city. I wasn’t part of that work there. But I watched it happen while I was living there and something like that here might help.
Specifically, you do think that there has to be that component of care that goes along with it, mental health care and just regular counseling that could be able to help?
When we closed the state institutions, 40 years ago, we did the wrong thing for the right reasons because we never approved enough money to take care of the people that were on the street. We have to figure out a way to care for the people that can’t care for themselves. That’s not just in homelessness, is it? I think that’s a tough one to figure out because people have a right to control their own destiny, but when their own destiny is that then it’s difficult. How do you determine when they’re going to hurt themselves? All I could do for the fella yesterday was give him a sleeping bag, some food and let him use the bathroom. But that sure beat not having those things. In the long term, it would have been great if I could have called somebody up and said, pick him up and take him to the shelter. But the shelters are all overwhelmed right now. Especially in the rain, I’m sure they got hundreds of calls from people like me, who saw people that they would like to help and probably couldn’t help half of them. Our agencies are doing an amazing job. It’s so amazing that the people left on the street are the hardcore people who because of mental illness or substance abuse or other things are too troubled for shelters. We need much more than shelters. We need permanent housing. Shelters aren’t the answer here. They have to be a bridge to permanent housing.
What advice would you give to everyday people? To have a good life and be a good person?
Every pastor has themes in his or her ministry in preaching and my continual theme is, God loves you, and in the Christian sense, God has already saved you. So how are you going to respond to that? I hope you’ll think of responding in love to the community and I want to define the community very widely. We’ve raised a ton of money here for Afghan refugees, for example. We are going to talk about another part of my heart. Refugee work. You saw my bio that I’m on the President’s Council for Lutheran immigration and refugee services, which is the major agency settling Afghan refugees in the country. People don’t know that. But it’s not just issues here I want people to look at, but you can’t do everything. So our congregation focuses on preschool education, on homeless college students, on the coalition, and people then figure out their own special interest. My special interest is refugees. I always say to people, God loves you and has already saved you, so you don’t worry about those things. What are you going to do in response? How will you demonstrate that love of God to others? For some, they’re going to focus on their family, when they have their children and those kinds of things. It’s been especially difficult for young parents during the last two years. For others, they can get involved in a specific ministry, in their community or even beyond their community. So find that niche where you can express God’s love to others and then do it. I was reading the other day that about 10% of people in the country during these last few years have actually done very well financially. So give more money. If you have it, share it. Congregations of all faiths are not normally run by a few big givers. They’re run by a middle class and lower middle class people who are generous. We’ve been very blessed here in Mount Olive with that. So share some time, share some money. That’s how you act out God’s love. It’s great to tell people about Jesus in the process, but Jesus was more interested in feeding people and healing people. I know why I do it, why we do it, we do it because of God’s love and Jesus Christ in our case, but then not just to talk about it, but actually to do something.
Since the issue came up, I am going to ask you about your work with refugees.
It’s been an issue of mine for my entire ministry. Back when I first started in the 70s, we were resettling Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. It was a small congregation. They wanted us to take this extended Cambodian family and we couldn’t figure it out. Should we do it, should we not do it? I called my older brother and I talked to him about it. He said to me, “your grandchildren are going to ask you what you did.” I think about that a lot. So I get emotional. I think this generation’s grandchildren are going to ask them what they did for African refugees. So I think for me, it’s the basics of faith. Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees themselves; they fled to Egypt to save his life from Herod who was killing all the little children. For me, I do not believe you can be a Christian or Jewish and not favor immigrants or refugees. For Christians and Jewish people, it is so central to our faith.